New York: How Fashion Week and style icons built America’s fashion capital

Along with Paris, London and Milan, New York is one of the world’s fashion capitals. It’s an amazing melting pot of cultures and harbours a huge pool of creative talent, style icons and renowned fashion retailers. So it’s no wonder that New York’s women are considered to be some of the best-dressed in the world.

Whether they’re just grabbing a coffee or attending the year’s biggest event, the city’s residents always look cool and sophisticated, thanks to their impressive wardrobes and willingness to take risks. Here’s everything you need to know about the city’s fashion and how you can get your own taste of it.

The history of American fashion

America was relatively late to the party when it came to mass-producing clothes. It was only in the 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution, that new manufacturing methods were introduced and the country’s textile and clothing production could begin.

This started with menswear — or, more specifically, with work clothes that were designed and made by companies such as Levi Strauss. Women, on the other hand, continued to make most of their own clothes, or bought them from across the pond, until the 1900s.

At the beginning of the 20th century, American designers relied on copying the fashion of Paris, rather than coming up with their own ideas. Buyers from department stores would also visit the French capital’s runway shows to steal new details or trends to take back home for production.

Then, in the 1920s and 30s, America began to gain its own identity in the fashion world, which was all thanks to Hollywood. Women in films were supposedly the epitome of beauty and style so, when people saw stars such as Katharine Hepburn (pictured) wearing pieces they’d never seen, they wanted them. This turned some costumers into fully-fledged designers.

Charles James, a British-born designer, created extravagant ball gowns throughout the 1940s and 50s, earning himself the nickname of “America’s first couturier”. His designs often had a structured bodice, small waist, plunging neckline and excessively full skirt. American women were desperate to own his gowns, but few could afford to. The appeal was that James’ dresses helped women to appear wealthier and more sophisticated. This is a theme that still runs through American fashion today — especially in New York — as women often dress for the lives and jobs they want, not necessarily the ones they have.

Then, in the 1950s and 60s, the ready-to-wear movement finally took hold. One of America’s largest contributions to the fashion industry is that it began to offer read-to-wear clothing in all styles, from sportswear to formal eveningwear. This made fashion a lot more accessible and allowed people to dress the way they wanted to.

This, unfortunately, was disastrous for custom dressmakers, as ready-to-wear clothing was a lot easier and often more affordable to get a hold of. Therefore, by the 1980s, there was a much smaller number of people designing couture clothing.

And now we’re here, in the 21st century, where ready-to-wear still rules, ladies are still dressing with their aspirations in mind, and New York City is one of the fashion capitals of the world. Of course, trends will come and go, but American fashion is all about making an effort, having fun and being yourself. So, if you follow those rules, you’ll be dressing like a true New Yorker in no time.

American fashion designers

Michael Kors

Born in 1959 as Karl Anderson, Michael Kors changed his name when his mother remarried and gave him the option. As a child, he worked as a model and appeared in television adverts for the likes of Lucky Charms breakfast cereal and Charmin’ paper towels. He also attended acting lessons but, at the age of 14, quit in favour of following his dream to become a fashion designer.

Although he enrolled at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, he left only nine months later when he was offered the chance to sell his own designs at Lothars, a shop based in the city. While working there, he was given the opportunity to show his designs to Dawn Mello, the former fashion director of luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman. He was offered a deal and, within three years, his designs could be found in all major American luxury outlets, including Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue. Then, 1984 saw his label’s first catwalk show.

While he continued to develop his own brand, he was appointed as the designer for French fashion house Céline, where he stayed for six years, during which he was promoted to creative director. However, he chose to leave in order to focus on his growing eponymous empire.

Throughout his career, he has received a huge range of awards. These have included the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Womenswear Designer of the Year in 1999, and the CFDA’s Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.

Ralph Lauren

Born in the Bronx to parents who were Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants, Ralph’s original surname was Lifshitz. However, after enduring consistent bullying, he decided to change it to Lauren. Even back then, in his teens, he was known for his distinctive dress sense and took inspiration from cultural icons, like Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, but also loved to wear typically preppy outfits.

Lauren spent two years studying business at Baruch College, Manhattan. Then, after a brief stint in the army, he accepted a sales job at clothing store Brooks Brothers. He quickly moved on to Beau Brummell, a retailer that sold men’s neckwear, and it was there that he began to design neckties with a wide cut, branding them under the name “Polo”. He was able to sell these at large department stores, such as Bloomingdales, and eventually started to develop his business properly with a £30,000 loan. This allowed him to design a full menswear line and he introduced a Ralph Lauren womenswear label in 1971.

In 1972, Lauren first released a range of short-sleeved cotton shirts in 24 colours, which were all emblazoned with the brand’s now-iconic logo. This, of course, was the small image of a man playing polo, which was designed by René Lacoste, the tennis pro.

Calvin Klein

When Calvin Klein was a child, he’d intently watch his grandmother as she carried out her work as a seamstress. Then, while other kids his age were playing sports outside, he’d spend hours sketching designs and sewing them together. When he finished elementary school, he enrolled at the High School of Art and Design, before moving on to the esteemed Fashion Institute of Technology.

His first professional taste of the fashion industry came when he was offered an apprenticeship by Dan Millestein, who owned a cloak and suit house. Enthusiastic and fully committed, he worked hard day and night to develop his designs. Then, in 1968, he collaborated with his childhood friend, Barry Schwartz, to set up his own eponymous brand, which was limited to selling coats at the very beginning.

His very first order came about by accident. A buyer from Bonwit Teller, a large New York clothing store, got out of a lift on the wrong floor of a hotel where Klein’s workshop was set up and wandered in to find him working on his designs. She made a large order worth $50,000, which earned the designer rave reviews, and the store’s executives encouraged him to expand his line into sportswear.

By 1971, the brand sold sportswear, classic blazers and lingerie, as well as coats. It became a huge hit with both the press and public, and the company’s revenues escalated to $30 million by 1977.

Today, his name adorns everything from perfume to men’s boxers and he’s received numerous awards for his contribution to fashion, including three prestigious Coty Awards, which he was given in 1973, 1974 and 1975.

Tommy Hilfiger

As a high-school student, Tommy Hilfiger opened a small chain of stores called People’s Place with just $150. His goal was to bring “cool big-city styles” from New York City to his small town, Elmira. Following this, he began to design for other boutiques he’d always loved and, in 1979, he moved to the city to begin his career as a full-time fashion designer.

While there, he caught the interest of businessman Mohan Murjani, who had been looking to create a line of menswear. Considering the designer’s obvious talent and entrepreneurial background, Murjani decided that they’d make a great team. And, with his help, Hilfiger released his first signature collection in 1985, which saw him modernise classic designs of button-down shirts, chinos and the like with updated details and tailoring. Although people across the world have now been buying his designs for more than 30 years, this relaxed attitude and love of simplicity still run through his collections today.

Hilfiger’s flair for recreating traditional pieces has earned him a lot of fans, as well as a range of awards. For example, in 1995, he was named Menswear Designer of the Year by the CFDA. Then, in 1998, the legendary Parsons School of Design named him as their ‘Designer of the Year’, as did GQ magazine. Most recently, in 2012, Anna Wintour presented him with the CFDA’s prestigious Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award.

Marc Jacobs

Born in New York City in 1963, Marc Jacobs spent a lot of his early life moving from place to place with his mother following his father’s death. It was only when he moved in with his paternal grandmother that he felt at home. Well-travelled and educated, with a love for beautiful things, Jacobs’ grandmother always encouraged him to be creative and consistently showed her appreciation for his designs.

During the day he would study at the High School of Art and Design. Then, after classes, he would work at Charivari, an upmarket clothing boutique. The shop’s staff allowed Jacobs, who was a stock boy at the time, to design jumpers for the store in-between folding clothes and dressing mannequins. This helped him to secure a place at the prestigious Parsons School of Design, where he received both the Perry Ellis Gold Thimble and Design Student of the Year awards at graduation in 1984.

In 1987, after designing collections for labels like Sketchbook, he also became the youngest person to ever win the CFDA Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent. Quite naturally, he then took over as the womenswear designer at Perry Ellis, but, after the brand closed its manufacturing operations and Jacobs designed a grunge collection that critics loved but the company hated, he decided to start his own brand.

So, with financial backing from his former bosses, he joined forces with long-time business partner Robert Duffy. In 1997, while working on his own label, he was also appointed as the creative director of Louis Vuitton. While the designer found the pressures of his new role difficult to deal with at first, he spent 16 years at the renowned fashion house. Within 10 years of working there, he’d already quadrupled the company’s profits and turned it into a fashion powerhouse. So, it’s no wonder that he too has a Geoffrey Been Lifetime Achievement Award from the CFDA, which he received in 2011.

The New York fashion philosophy

Trainers work with any outfit

Getting around New York requires a lot of walking, which makes a pair of stylish yet comfortable trainers non-negotiable. No outfit is too formal or special to be finished off with a pair. So, whether you’ve planned a casual day of shopping, or are off to work, put on a fashionable pair of sports shoes and get walking.

Of course, when you arrive at your destination, you can always slip your feet into some dressier shoes. Although, if you pick out some trainers that are especially stylish, you won’t have to! You can shop for all-American sneakers that are likely to fit the bill in our footwear department.

When in doubt, wear black

On days when you stare into your wardrobe — which, let’s be honest, is probably overflowing — and conclude that you have absolutely nothing to wear, opt for an all-black outfit. It’s a very easy colour to wear and it always looks great. It’s a very good idea to have one of these little black dresses in your collection for such occasions.

In the summer, pair yours with some embellished sandals and a large pair of sunglasses. Or, in the colder months, layer over a pair of black tights and add some boots and a leather biker jacket — it really is that easy to look ‘New York City cool’.

Leather jackets all day everyday

Well-made leather jackets will never go out of style and actually get better with age, so they make great investment pieces. New York women are so committed to their leather jackets that they’ll wear them all year round, come rain or shine. No fashionable woman should be without one, as they look amazing and help to add a cool edge to any look. Take a look at our range of women’s leather jackets, where you’re sure to find a piece you’ll love.

Have a grab-and-go backpack

“It” bags and tiny clutches might look great, but they’ll never have the practicality appeal that backpacks do. When you’re on the go all of the time, you need a bag that can carry all of your everyday essentials and more. Plus, if you spend a lot of time rushing from A to B, you don’t want to be lugging a massive handbag around on one arm. If you need a bag that you can just grab and go, check out our selection of women’s backpacks that will do the job perfectly.

Sunglasses are a must, whatever the weather

Whether it’s sunny or snowing, day or night, sunglasses are a vital part of any New York-inspired outfit. It doesn’t matter whether you need them — what’s important is that they look great. Simple aviators suit most face shapes and are timeless, while bright, quirkier styles will help you to express your personality a lot more. We have an array of different designs in our collection of women’s sunglasses — there’s sure to be a pair to suit your needs and style.

Be confident

New York women might be well-dressed and well-groomed, but the most notable thing about them is their confidence. They walk through the streets of the Big Apple with purpose and determination and, whether in heels or trainers, they never miss a step. So, if you want to radiate similar levels of grace and sophistication, make sure you have confidence in yourself. The rest will follow.

For even more style inspiration, take a look at our guides to French and British fashion, as well as our complete collection of womenswear. There you’ll find everything you could possibly need to put together a New York–inspired wardrobe.